I’m shady and proud: Embracing my melanin

Illustration of three people with different levels of melanin
Franchesca Spektor/Staff

Sitting stagnant in the legendary Bay Area traffic during rush hour, I couldn’t help but softly chuckle at the obscene plate frames on the rear ends of other vehicles. As I continued to playfully glance at other automobiles actively searching for my next source of  amusement, a bumper sticker displaying the Philippine flag in the saturations of red, blue, and yellow tones accompanying the tagline “Proud to be Pinoy” caught my eye.

Remnants of the slight crescent on my lips induced by the delights of my innocent observation vanished. I found myself dumbfounded in a state of social perplexity: Why do Filipinos claim so much pride in their culture when they openly denounce their native heritage?

Suddenly, I had a series of flashbacks — ones that I would willingly choose to not have.

When I first learned how to apply makeup at the age of 15, I roamed Jefferson High School’s blue and gold hallways with a face resembling that of an unsophisticated geisha; I wore a cheap, drugstore foundation that was embarrassingly four shades lighter than my natural skin tone, creating a bi-toned mural consisting of my brown neck and newly transformed white mask.

While most women’s initial encounter with makeup may be deemed as “cringe-worthy” because of inexperience, mine stemmed from willful ignorance. An inculcated colonial mentality made me embrace the Western ideals of beauty. Teenage Mariah thought, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.”

Growing up as a Filipina, I was not “Asian enough.” I was not “Spanish enough” or “Pacific islander enough” either. This identity crisis that the majority of Filipino youth are accustomed to, coupled with the culture’s ingrained normalcy of complexion-shaming is a convoluted conundrum for future generations: How can we teach young men and women to love and accept themselves when we are caught up in our own ignorance?

One’s skin tone should not be a determinant of favorability. In the Philippines, this is easily dismissed when the country’s inhabitants are mostly from homogeneous backgrounds. Unlike the United States, the Philippines is not a diverse melting pot. Apparently, it is not “racist” when a judgment pertains to one’s own “kind.” But the ramifications of complexion-shaming are extensive. To judge an individual based on skin color, a predisposed physical feature, is synonymous with judging that person’s humanity.

In 2017, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, delivered a speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation where he made a xenophobic remark toward former president Barack Obama. He stated, “ang itim-itim mo, mayabang ka” (you’re extremely dark, you’re arrogant). The audience laughed in response to this — yes, dark people can be racist, too.

Ridiculing someone’s existence just because their naturally occurring level of melanin exceeds the perceived ideal should not be condoned. Imposing prejudice on others can never be justified. Having the same ethnic background is not a warrant to pull the “immunity from bigotry” card.

Having emigrated from the Philippines less than a decade ago, I  encountered my fair share of criticisms regarding my complexion. When I was eleven, I recall my mother expressing dismay over my choice of wearing a long brown skirt for a school function. She claimed that it “blended” too well with my skin tone.

Some aisles in Philippine grocery stores are solely dedicated to whitening products. Even though I am relatively light-skinned for a woman of Filipino descent, I have not grown immune to the uninvited criticisms of my ancestors telling me that I should spend less time outdoors to avoid the tanning effects of the sun. I received shade, literally and figuratively.

The aggregation of critiques from adults in my childhood led me to welcome a distorted perception of beauty. Perhaps, my desire for lightness is a subtle yearning for the privilege and unspeakable advantages that young brown girls lack merely because of the color of their skin. When a chameleon senses a threat in its environment, it elicits a chemical response that enables it to blend in. And that’s exactly what I did: I used whitening soaps in an attempt to fit into a society that vilifies anything but milky white.

Even though Filipinos berate those with darker skin, ironically, a majority of us are actually born dark. Having been colonized by the Spaniards for 333 years, we have learned to blindly internalize a sense of cultural oppression and inferiority regarding our native attributes.

The media in the Philippines portrays actors and actresses with white skin as the epitome of superiority. Actresses who are dark-skinned are typically either depicted as the envious villain or the lowly, inferior servant to the light-skinned protagonist. Bagani, a Filipino television series that is inspired by pre-colonial Philippine mythology, is disgracefully portrayed by actors and actresses of mixed and foreign descent exhibiting Eurocentric traits. This cultural appropriation has enraged members of the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), asking the network that produced the show to “immediately rectify” the injustice and misrepresentation.

As I matured, I slowly learned to recognize that my skin is a smooth canvas that does not need repainting. Although my face and neck are no longer a bi-toned mural with contrasting gradients of burnt sienna and bleached ivory, the splendor of my morality is enough to decorate me as a sui generis masterpiece. I eliminated the counterfactual deception of utilizing whitening soaps in my daily shower routine. The phrase “If it’s brown, flush it down” is jargon for eliminating excrements of fecal matter; it ought to remain that way. Even though it seems painfully obvious, this same philosophy should not be applied to brown skin, too.

I can proudly say that I like my skin just how I like my chicken nuggets: golden brown.

Contact Mariah De Zuzuarregui at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mdezuzuarregui.

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